How a Cuban restaurateur created an Italian legacy in Sweetwater

Nicanor “Nick” Gonzalez opened La Nonna in 1995 and ever since, the Italian restaurant has been a dining staple in Sweetwater. 

The restaurant, 117 SW 107th Ave., offers traditional homemade Italian meals such as lasagna, chicken parmesan, spaghetti with meatballs, and more.

La Nonna is open from Tuesday to Sunday. The restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Tuesday from Friday. On Saturday and Sunday, La Nonna’s hours are from 12 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Gonzalez, originally from Holguín, Cuba, emigrated more than 30 years ago to New York, where he began working in his cousin’s Italian restaurant, which was called Il Bambino.

While in New York, as he continued to learn about Italian cuisine, Gonazalez worked alongside a famous chef named Vincenzo. Gonzalez learned to speak Italian and how to cook everything Vincenzo had on the menu.

Thanks to Vincenzo’s mentorship, Gonzalez opened his first restaurant when he moved to Miami. As a tribute to his cousin and the restaurant where he learned it all, he named it Il Bambino.

Gonzalez’s Il Bambino opened in 1991 in Cutler Ridge. Approximately a year and a half later, he secured an investor who financed a move to a more desirable location near Tropical Park.

Four years later, Gonzalez opened La Nonna in Sweetwater. He soon closed Il Bambino and La Nonna became Nick’s pride and joy.

“The restaurant is very family orientated, very homey, very warm,” said Stephen Gonzalez, Nick Gonzalez’s son.

Over the course of the last 30 years, La Nonna attracted a devoted following. 

Mario and Sandra Vives, a Miami couple who celebrated 47 years of marriage in 2023, have been dining at La Nonna since the summer of 1996.

The couple discovered the restaurant because one of Mario’s customers was a regular at Il Bambino and they knew Nicanor Gonzalez also owned La Nonna. They invited Mario and Sandra to join them there for lunch.

“We fell in love with the quality of the food, the friendly environment, and the kindness of the staff,” Mario said, describing what attracted him and his wife to the restaurant.

Mario Vives talks with Nicanor Gonzalez inside La Nonna (Courtesy of Mario and Sandra Vives)

As the years went on and the visits became more frequent, Mario and Sandra developed a friendship with Nick Gonzalez. 

Nick Gonzalez told them stories about when he worked at the original Il Bambino in New York. They exchanged updates about their families. In fact, they were closer than they thought. 

“One day I discovered that Nick personally knew my parents back in Cuba,” Sandra said. “My father owned a hardware store in Holguín, where both our families coincidently were from, and they eventually crossed paths and became friends.”

Sandra Vives smiles alongside Nicanor Gonzalez in La Nonna (Courtesy of Mario and Sandra Vives)

Mario and Sandra will always treasure the memories and meals they shared with not just Nick, but the entire staff at La Nonna, now more than ever after Nick’s death in 2020.

After his father died, Stephen Gonzalez took over La Nonna. His father always wanted him alongside him in the restaurant.

“I started at the beginning, first mopping floors, then I moved to making salads,” Stephen Gonzalez said. “Then I moved to making the bread, then I moved to busboy, then I moved to waiter, and then I moved to working the cash register.”

Eventually, he learned how to cook and create the iconic meals like his father.

Although Stephen took over the role of La Nonna’s owner, it wasn’t always his career. He has been a video and film director for 20 years. Before that, he worked as a professional tattoo artist for 16 years. In that sense, he’s always been an artist.

Juggling a film and video directing business with La Nonna isn’t easy, Stephen Gonzalez said, but he is dedicated to keep his father’s legacy alive. 

“More than anything, I always had a sense of home and a sense of responsibility being here and being a part of the restaurant with my father,” he said.

Nicolle Hernandez is a hearing-impaired student at Florida International University. She is a Digital Communication and Media major with a concentration in Digital Journalism. She is also pursuing a minor in Social Media and E-Marketing Analytics. She is passionate about her studies and after graduation, she hopes to explore a career in the digital marketing field.